the-toll-of-the-sea

There is no friend as loyal as a book. - Ernest Hemingway

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Anna May Wong with Sessue Hayakawa,  Philip Ahn and  Keye Luke.

Anna May Wong’s parents were second-generation Chinese Americans; her maternal and paternal grandparents had resided in the U.S. since at least 1855.

At the age of 17 she played her first leading role, in the early Metro two-strip Technicolor movie The Toll of the Sea (1922). The New York Times commented, “Miss Wong stirs in the spectator all the sympathy her part calls for and she never repels one by an excess of theatrical ‘feeling’. She has a difficult role, a role that is botched nine times out of ten, but hers is the tenth performance. Completely unconscious of the camera, with a fine sense of proportion and remarkable pantomimic accuracy … She should be seen again and often on the screen.”

Despite such reviews, Hollywood proved reluctant to create starring roles for Wong; her ethnicity prevented U.S. filmmakers from seeing her as a leading lady.

Conscious that Americans viewed her as “foreign born” even though she was born and raised in California, Wong began cultivating a flapper image.

It soon became evident that Wong’s career would continue to be limited by American anti-miscegenation laws, which prevented her from sharing an on-screen kiss with any person of another race, even if the character was Asian, but being portrayed by a white actor. The only leading Asian man in U.S. films in the silent era was Sessue Hayakawa. Unless Asian leading men could be found, Wong could not be a leading lady.

Tired of being both typecast and being passed over for lead Asian character roles in favor of non-Asian actresses, Wong left Hollywood in 1928 for Europe.

She returned to the U.S. in June 1935 with the goal of obtaining the role of O-lan, the lead female character in MGM’s film version of The Good Earth. Since its publication in 1931, Wong had made known her desire to play O-lan in a film version of the book and as early as 1933, Los Angeles newspapers were touting Wong as the best choice for the part. Nevertheless, the studio apparently never seriously considered Wong for the role because Paul Muni, an actor of European descent, was to play O-lan’s husband, Wang Lung.

According to Wong, she was instead offered the part of Lotus, a deceitful song girl who helps to destroy the family and seduces the family’s oldest son. Wong refused the role, telling MGM head of production Irving Thalberg, “If you let me play O-lan, I will be very glad. But you’re asking me – with Chinese blood – to do the only unsympathetic role in the picture featuring an all-American cast portraying Chinese characters.” The role Wong hoped for went to Luise Rainer, who won the Best Actress Oscar for her performance. MGM’s refusal to consider Wong for this most high-profile of Chinese characters in U.S. film is remembered today as “one of the most notorious cases of casting discrimination in the 1930s”

Anna May Wong, one of the first well known  Chinese American actresses, starred in movies such as  Piccadilly, Daughter of the Dragon, and Daughter of Shanghai. She was born in 1905 and began acting when she was only a teenager, quickly achieving international fame. Her film The Toll of the Sea, which came out in 1922, was one of the first movies made in color. In the late 1920s, Anna, frustrated by stereotypical roles she was being given in Hollywood, left for Europe. In Europe, she received more opportunities, starring in both plays and films.

Anna returned to the United States in 1930s when Paramount Studios  offered her a contract. Although she was often asked to play stereotyped characters, Anna worked to portray Chinese Americans more authentically and in a positive light. During World War II, she took a break from acting, and spent time and money advocating against the Japanese invasion of China. Anna’s TV show The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong made US television history as the first show starring an Asian American lead in 1951. Anna planned a return to film, but passed away in 1961.

The picture above shows Anna May Wong near the end of her life. She bought two tickets to a Charity Field Day and stands in the photograph with then Deputy Mayor John McMorrow.

Actress Anna May Wong is sold two tickets to the Mayor’s Charity Field Day by Deputy Mayor John McMorrow, circa 1960-1961, Mayor John F. Collins records, Collection #0244.001, City of Boston Archives, Boston

Blog post by Monica Haberny, City Archives Outreach Intern

February 17, 1917 - British Q-Ship, disguised to look like an unarmed merchant vessel, sinks German U-Boat.

Pictured - HMS Farnborough goes down, but but before taking a German sub down with her.

With all restraints lifted off German submarines, the death toll of those at sea rose dramatically in the month of February 1917. But the Entente had its victories, too. On February 17, a British Q-Ship, designed to look like an unarmed trawler but actually brimming with hidden weapons, lured German submarine U-83 in close off the Southern Irish coast.

The German sub fired a torpedo, and the British captain, Commander Campbell, deliberately let it hit his ship. His well trained crew took to their lifeboats, making a riotous show of disorder to pretend to be civilian crew. While they play-acted, their comrades manned weapons hidden behind flaps and waited for the Germans to come inspect their kill. The sub obliged, sailing up within ten meters of the British crew, when the Royal Navy sailors revealed their disguise and blasted the U-boat with a six-lber gun and several Maxims. The first six-lber shell decapitated the German captain, and the submarine soon sank with only two survivors. Campbell signalled for help, and back on shore duly won the Victoria Cross for his actions and £1000 in prize money to split with his crew.

A post wherein film writer Kimberly Luperi explores Anna May Wong’s perseverance in the face of racial discrimination.

Anna May Wong did not have it easy in Hollywood. Despite her talent and ambition, the first international Chinese-American star faced racial roadblocks that motivated her to fight for better minority representation onscreen.

Young Wong frequented downtown Los Angeles film sets, earning the nickname “curious Chinese child.” At 17, she landed the lead in the two-color Technicolor feature THE TOLL OF THE SEA (‘22). Her casting was a triumph in itself, as actresses like Mary Pickford generally played Asian women in “yellowface.” Wong’s nuanced, mature performance stunned, but to her chagrin, film producers subsequently offered her degrading “dragon lady” parts. In her 1933 interview I Protest, she pondered: “Why is it that the screen Chinese is nearly always the villain?… We are not like that.“

Dissatisfied, Wong sailed to Europe, where audiences recognized her talents. When the esteemed star returned stateside in 1930, not much had changed, and film producers still paradoxically perceived her as either "too Chinese” or “too American.” For Wong, the final straw was "one of the most notorious cases of casting discriminations in the 1930s” – the Chinese lead role in THE GOOD EARTH ('37) going to German-born Luise Rainer.

After reading Pearl S. Buck’s Pulitzer-Prize winning novel in 1931, Wong longed for the role of O-Lan and the mainstream breakthrough it would afford her. Lobbying on her behalf started in 1933, but still Wong struggled against biases within both Hollywood and the Chinese community. For associate producer Albert Lewin, Wong “did not fit his conception of what Chinese people looked like.” At the same time, the Chinese government pressed against her involvement.

Wong’s hopes of winning the role faded altogether when Paul Muni landed the male lead. At the time, the Production Code forbade actors of different races from engaging in romantic partnerships on screen. These strict miscegenation guidelines held even though Austro-Hungarian-born Muni had won a role as a  Chinese character. Whether film producers offered Wong the unfavorable supporting part of Lotus is unclear, but she wouldn’t have accepted anyway, as she told Modern Screen in 1937: ”… You’re asking me - with Chinese blood - to do the only unsympathetic role in the picture featuring an all-American cast portraying Chinese characters.“

Though disappointed, Wong put the bigotry behind her, visited China for the first time and returned determined to enhance the portrayal of Chinese characters by declaring she’d only accept positive parts. The Chinese-American community welcomed the news, as Chinese-American media often blamed Wong for accepting the stereotypical roles handed her. A journalist once wrote of Wong, "She has done more than enough to disgrace the Chinese race.” Wong just couldn’t win.

But she tried. Shot on modest budgets with little risk of financial failure, two Paramount B-pictures, DAUGHTER OF SHANGHAI ('37) and KING OF CHINATOWN ('39), offered Wong “progressive and unusual roles.” In DAUGHTER OF SHANGHAI (’37), Wong plays a daughter of a man murdered by smugglers. To avenge her father, she goes undercover, helps solve the crime and exposes the racket. Wong thought of the role as the best she’d had to date. Then, in KING OF CHINATOWN (’39), Wong plays a brilliant female surgeon who later brings medical supplies to China to aid the war relief.

On the war front, Wong assisted the Sino-Japanese war effort onscreen in the early 1940s with top billed performances in Poverty Row pictures BOMBS OVER BURMA (’42), as a teacher, and THE LADY FROM CHUNGKING (’42), as a guerilla leader in command of a regiment of men. Wong donated salaries from both films to the China War Relief Fund.

Though Wong never fully overcame the racial hurdles she faced, she fought unjust discrimination with dignity, resilience and conviction.

Sailors & Other Sea Travellers - Superstition & Folklore

 "Red skies at night, sailor’s delight. Red skies at morning, sailor take warning.

Lore

Davy Jones is a popular character in sailor’s yore, especially of the gothic variety. Davy Jones’ Locker, is an idiom for the bottom of the sea: the state of death for drowned sailors. The origins of the name are unclear, and many theories have been put forth, including:

  • An actual David Jones, who was a pirate on the Indian Ocean in the 1630s.
  • A pub owner who kidnapped sailors and then dumped them onto any passing ship.
  • The incompetent Duffer Jones, a myopic sailor who often found himself over-board.
  • Or that Davy Jones is another name for Satan or "Devil Jonah”, the biblical Jonah who became the “evil angel” of all sailors. Due to this, sailors with the name “Jonah” were bad luck to have abroad.

Upon death, a wicked sailor’s body supposedly went to Davy Jones’ locker (a chest, as lockers were back then), but a pious sailor’s soul went to Fiddler’s Green (in maritime folklore it is a kind of afterlife for sailors who have served at least 50 years at sea).

At Fiddler’s Green, where seamen true
When here they’ve done their duty
The bowl of grog shall still renew
And pledge to love and beauty.

Dolphins and albatrosses were said to be the reincarnated souls of dead sailors; and sailors could not kill either of them. 

Mermaids & Mermen

The legend of the mermaid, a creature with the upper body of a human and the lower body of a fish, has circulated the worlds oceans as far back as 5,000 B.C.

One of the earliest scientific accounts of the mermaid was documented by the great historian Pliny The Elder in 586 A.D. Pliny the Elder was convinced of the existence of mermaids and described them as “rough and scaled all over.” Since that time, and well before, thousands of sailors across the globe have reported seeing mermaids swimming off the bows of their ships. Even the famous Christopher Columbus reported an encounter with a mermaid; in January of 1493 Columbus reported that he saw three mermaids fin the ocean just off Haiti.

Mermaids were often considered lucky, but not universally. In Trinidad and Tobago, sea-dwelling mermen “were known to grant a wish, transform mediocrity into genius and confer wealth and power." Mermaids appear in British folklore as unlucky omens, both foretelling disaster and provoking it.

Sailors would look for mermaid’s purses (the egg case of a skate, ray or shark; one of the most common objects washed up on the sea) on beaches for signs of mermaids in the area.

Klabautermann 

Traditionally, a type of kobold, a Klabautermann, lives aboard ships and helps sailors and fishermen on the Baltic or North Sea in their duties. He is a merry and diligent creature, with an expert understanding of most watercraft, and an unsupressable musical talent. He also rescues sailors washed overboard. The belief in Klabautermanns dates to at least the 1770s.

A carved Klabautermann image, of a small sailor dressed in yellow with a tobacco pipe and wooden sailor’s cap, often wearing a caulking hammer, is attached to the mast as a symbol of good luck

However, despite the positive attributes, there is one omen associated with his presence: no member of a ship blessed by his presence shall ever set eyes on him; he only ever becomes visible to the crew of a doomed ship.

More recently, the Klabautermann is sometimes described as having more sinister attributes, and blamed for things that go wrong on the ship. This incarnation of the Klabautermann is more demon- or goblin-like, prone to play pranks and, eventually, doom the ship and her crew. This deterioration of image probably stems from sailors, upon returning home, telling stories of their adventures at sea.

Sailor Tattoos

Sailors believed that certain symbols and talismans would help them in when facing certain events in life; they thought that those symbols would attract good luck or bad luck in the worst of the cases:

Sailors, at the constant mercy of the elements, often feel the need for religious images on their bodies to appease the angry powers that caused storms and drowning far from home.

The images of a pig and a hen were good luck; both animals are not capable of swimming, but they believed that God would look down upon a shipwreck and see an animal not capable of swimming and would take them into his hand and place them on land. Sailors had the belief that by wearing the North Star, this symbol would help them to find his or her way home.

The Flying Dutchman

The Flying Dutchman is a legendary ghost ship  that can never make port and is doomed to sail the oceans forever. The myth is likely to have originated from 17th-century nautical folklore. The oldest extant version dates to the late 18th century. Sightings in the 19th and 20th centuries reported the ship to be glowing with ghostly light. If hailed by another ship, the crew of the Flying Dutchman will try to send messages to land, or to people long dead. In ocean lore, the sight of this phantom ship is a portent of doom.

 Some say that The Flying Dutchman was used for piracy and was loaded with gold and other loot. While travelling with a load of treasure, unspeakable crimes were committed on board the ship, thus making it cursed forever.

"originally a vessel loaded with great wealth, on board of which some horrid act of murder and piracy had been committed” and that the apparition of the ship “is considered by the mariners as the worst of all possible omens.

Other variations of the legend say that the Captain of The Flying Dutchman refused to go to port in the face of a horrible storm and as a result the entire ship perished. Others claim that the ship was not called The Flying Dutchman - that instead it was the name of the captain of the ship. Eventually, as people passed the legend down through the generations, the story of The Flying Dutchman referred to the ship.

Superstitions

Bad luck:

  • No bananas on board -  At the height of the trading empire between Spain and the Caribbean in the 1700’s, most cases of disappearing ships happened to be carrying a cargo of bananas at the time.
  • No women on board - Women were said to bring bad luck on board because they distracted the sailors from their sea duties. This kind of behaviour angered the intemperate seas that would take their revenge out on the ship. However, images of naked women were carved onto the bow of the ship because the woman’s bare breasts  "shamed the stormy seas into calm" and her open eyes guided the seamen to safety.
  • No whistling on board - Mariners have long held the belief that whistling or singing into the wind will “whistle up a storm”.
  • Deathly lexis - At sea, some words must be strictly avoided to ensure the ship and crew’s safe return. These include obvious ones like “drowned” and “goodbye”. If someone says “good luck” to you, it is sure to bring about bad luck. The only way to reverse the curse is by drawing blood.
  • Lurking sharks - A shark following the ship is a sign of inevitable death.
  • Unlucky days:
    - Fridays: Fridays have long been considered unlucky days, likely because Jesus Christ was crucified on a Friday.
    - Thursdays: Thursdays are bad sailing days because that is Thor’s day, the god of thunders and storms.
    - First Monday in April: The first Monday in April is the day Cain slew Abel.
    - Second Monday in August: The second Monday in August is the day the kingdoms of Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed.
    Superstitious sailor believed that the only good day to sail on was sundays.
  • Changing the name of the boat - Boats develop a life and mind of their own once they are named and Christened. If you do rename the boat- you absolutely must have a de-naming ceremony. This ceremony can be performed by writing the current boat name on a piece of paper, folding the paper and placing it in a wooden box then burning the box. After, the ashes were scooped up and thrown into the sea.
  • Red heads - Red heads were thought to bring bad luck to a ship if you happened to encounter one before boarding. However, if you speak to the redhead before they get the chance to speak to you, it is cancelled out.

Good luck:

  • It is good luck to spit in the ocean before you sail.
  • Coins thrown into the sea as a boat leaves port is a small toll to Neptune, the sea god, for a safe voyage.
  • Horseshoes on a ship’s mast will turn away a storm.
  • Cats brought luck. If a ship’s cat came to a sailor, it meant good luck.
  • Pouring wine on the deck will bring good luck on a long voyage.
  • It is often considered lucky to touch the collar of a sailor’s suit.